Champion of Open-Source Is Out at Hewlett-Packard
By Steve Lohr
The New York Times
September 9, 2002
For nearly two years, Bruce Perens was a senior strategist for open-source software at Hewlett-Packard -- an evangelist and rabble-rouser on behalf of a computing counterculture that is increasingly moving into the mainstream. Part of the job description, he was told, was to ''challenge H.P. management.''
His last day as a Hewlett-Packard employee was 10 days ago. The parting was amicable, Mr. Perens said, but he was fired -- ''officially a termination,'' he noted. ''It came after a long, long warning,'' Mr. Perens explained. ''The thing that I did that was most hazardous for H.P. is the Microsoft-baiting I tend to do.''
A spokeswoman for Hewlett-Packard declined to comment on Mr. Perens's departure, citing company policy against making public statements about why individual employees leave.
But, according to Mr. Perens, a handful of forces combined to make his exit from Hewlett-Packard inevitable. After it bought Compaq this year, the combined company became the largest single buyer of Windows for personal computers and data-serving computers, and thus more dependent on Microsoft. A rising threat to Microsoft is GNU Linux, an operating system distributed free and developed using the open-source model in which communities of programmers donate their labor to debug, modify and otherwise improve the code.
After the merger with Compaq, Hewlett also became the largest vendor of Linux-based server computers, ahead of Dell Computer and I.B.M. Yet Hewlett's bet on Linux still pales compared with its reliance on Microsoft. And after the merger, it was mainly former Compaq executives who took senior positions overseeing the Linux business.
In the premerger Hewlett, Mr. Perens, a leader in the open-source movement, enjoyed a lot of independence. When speaking to potential Hewlett customers on Wall Street and elsewhere, he would make the case for Linux, extolling it as a reliable and secure operating system that also allowed corporate customers to avoid being locked in to proprietary software like Microsoft's Windows or Sun Microsystems' Solaris.
Mr. Perens did not have to make the pitch for Hewlett as supplier of choice for Linux-based servers, services or support. That chore fell to Hewlett's sales people. ''It was a pretty unique job that existed because of the H.P. culture,'' Mr. Perens said. ''I would still be at H.P., I think, except for the Compaq merger.''
Yet beyond the postmerger atmosphere at Hewlett, Mr. Perens also says that he had been taking a more outspoken stance against Microsoft recently. ''Microsoft is out to crush Linux as a competitor,'' said Mr. Perens, who became truly galvanized after the emergence in May of a Microsoft-backed industry group, the Initiative for Software Choice. Besides the chip maker Intel, a close Microsoft ally, most of the other 20 or so members are smaller foreign companies or trade organizations.
The software-choice group sees a threat in what it has identified as 66 legislative proposals, government statements and studies promoting open-source software in 25 countries, including Germany, Britain, China, Peru and Brazil. Some of those legislative proposals would require the use of open-source software in government, but most of the government steps are efforts to ensure there is an alternative to Microsoft in their critical software markets.
The Microsoft-backed group says its purpose is to promote even-handed competition based on the merits of products, instead of a government bias for one kind of software. But as Mr. Perens sees it, the software-choice group has another agenda. ''Its principles are nice-sounding words,'' he said, ''but what they really say is, 'Let's maintain the status quo.' ''
Mr. Perens has stepped in himself and started an effort to respond to the Microsoft-backed group. His initiative, called Sincere Choice, has its own Web site (www.sincerechoice.org), and its own set of principles. Mr. Perens asserts that governments could get huge cost savings and encourage the spread of open-source software by purchasing only software that operates well with other programs. Under his proposal, software companies would be required to supply software with open technology standards and open file formats that can be used by outside software developers, without having to pay royalties.
''The royalty-free patent issue is crucial because the companies with huge software patent portfolios, especially Microsoft and I.B.M., have huge tolls booths on the Internet that can limit the spread of open-source software,'' Mr. Perens observed.
Mr. Perens, 44, has regarded technology as a force for personal freedom since he was a teenager in the Long Island suburbs of New York. He was a ham radio enthusiast, ran a pirate radio station in Lido Beach, N.Y., and was briefly a ''phone phreak,'' who could trick the telephone network into giving free long-distance calls.
His introduction to computing came in college, when he worked at the radio station at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. Mr. Perens was a station manager, and one of his duties was to prepare the weekly logs of programs to be broadcast, as well as commercials. It was a job for a computer, he figured, and he taught himself the Basic computer language and wrote a program to handle the logs.
The appeal of computing proved irresistible. ''I got so involved in the computer that I didn't go to classes anymore,'' recalled Mr. Perens, who never got a college degree.
Much of his considerable programming skills over the years since have been self-taught, a trait fueled by his early experience with formal education, when he was briefly misdiagnosed as mentally disabled (it was a motor-deficit problem that he soon outgrew). ''All of this is about empowering the individual with technology,'' Mr. Perens said. ''That has been a lifelong thrust.''
Mr. Perens eventually joined Pixar, where he worked for 12 years on hardware and software tools for the animators of ''Toy Story,'' ''Toy Story II'' and ''A Bug's Life.'' While working at Pixar, he became more deeply involved in the emerging open-source movement and with Linux.
Having left Hewlett, he is talking to other companies about doing consulting work. ''Open source doesn't mean you take a vow of poverty,'' Mr. Perens said.
Yet Mr. Perens is also deeply committed to the values that he believes the open-source movement embody. ''I'm sorry that I had to leave H.P., but I'm not going to shut up about my views,'' he said. ''I'm not just going to sit back and be a quiet engineer. I have a two-year-old son and I don't want him to grow up in a world that is less free.''
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company